Sunday, June 10, 2007

M. Butterfly's Henry David Hwang Has a New Play in Yellow Face

New play review
Los Angeles, June 10, at the Mark Taper Forum through July 1

Yellow Face
by David Henry Hwang obsesses over the question of ethnic appearance versus interior sensibilities. If I look Asian, am I Asian, or might I be more white? And so forth. An intriguing premise, alright, that lacks the dramatic focus and force to earn our ultimate respect. The good natured Hwang, recipient of a Tony award for M. Butterfly, has also contributed dialogue to hit Disney musicals, and so he has done mighty well for himself on the great white way. But what does he still see in his mirror? From the questions he continues to persistently raise, I would ventre to guess that he sees an image of himself that he does not fully accept, which is a pity.

At one point in the tautly staged though biographically sprawling Yellow Face, the character DHH (yes, Hwang has written himself into the play) tells another character that, in the end, "everything is about me." And that is one of the problems with this fitfully engaging work. Except for actors Hoon Lee, who plays DHH robustly well; and the delightfully versatile Tzi Ma essaying numerous characters — one of them, DHH’s banker father — the rest of the cast is fairly colorless. They are not served well by the writing, which favors an almost free-form debate over narrative and loses dramatic steam in the second act, itself a primer on alleged U.S. anti-Asian racism. The Chinese money-to-Clinton scandal involving Hwang’s father makes a cameo. So does the plight of Dr. Wen Ho of Los Alamos, accused of stealing U.S. secrets. There is, however, a confrontation between DHH and a New York Times reporter, ostensibly anxious to help DHH clear his name of the controversy surrounding his dad. It is a terrific tug-and-pull of wills and agendas that charges the stage with true dramatic power. If only an encounter like this could have been exploded into two compelling acts.

Besides the disjointed arc (are we to take the play as docu-drama or absurd fantasy?), another major problem is the preposterous premise that a white actor cast by DHH to appear in his early play, Face Value (which folded out of town), goes on to star in and receive rave notices from coast to coast in The King and I. So historically preposterous is this fiction that it undermines the seriousness of Hwang’s intent. I fear Hwang has spent too many hours laboring for the Disney kiddy musical factory. He has lots to offer, just too much in a single work. Yellow Face is a worthy idea still in search of a play.

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